Rightly, the focus throughout much the COVID-19 Pandemic has been how we keep each other safe from the effects the virus has on our physical health. Sadly, and necessarily, this has led to the closing of schools and more distanced forms of learning. Discussions, particularly in the press, have majored on issues like the lost hours of learning. But schools are not just a place for learning. They are places where kids socialise and develop emotionally.

According to Prof Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, when we close schools we close their lives. Children have suffered from loneliness and isolation, sleep deprivation and reduced physical activities, as all children's sports were banned at various times throughout the pandemic.

Now, more than ever, it is imperative we prioritise external learning environments for children. Innovative models like forest schools show us how a separate learning space, removed from the physical constraints of the classroom, can provide for a rich curriculum that benefit both pupils’ social and emotional wellbeing, as well as improving learning outcomes.

Since Autumn 2021, Pick Everard have been successful in a strategic appointment by Surrey County Council, to aid their ambitions programmes of transformation and supply architecture, lead design, landscape design and principal designer services for all of the council’s upcoming major education projects.  Currently within the practice, we are working on 12 SEN (special education needs) schools, 3 PRUs (pupil referral units) under the alternative provision BB104 Guidance and 3 MS (mainstream schools) under by BB103 Guidance. According to UK Government recent statistics, the number and percentage of pupils with SEN has continued to rise to 3.7% in 2021, continuing a trend of increases since 2017. The case for ensuring the school estate caters to everyone’s needs is growing.

As a designer, every landscape and project we approach is unique and requires careful consideration in how that space will by ultimately used. It’s a complex process to try to understand the user, in this case the SEN pupils, and address their broader needs, whether communication and interaction; cognition and learning; social, emotional and mental health difficulties and, sensory and sometimes physical needs.

Whilst the BB104 Guidance, sets some of the parameters we must work, it is just that, guidance. As a designer, it is our job to ensure a blended learning environment, that meets the needs of the pupils, whether that’s the soft or hard landscape where children can collectively play or allow safe, quiet places where children can focus inwards; habitats where children can discover the natural world, in safe and supported ways.

As we recover from COVID-19 and learn to live with disease, hopefully, we will not see the same school closures and isolated learning the initial response to the pandemic required.  Enriching outdoor environments will play an important role in reconnecting children to learning. Outdoor spaces in special schools are far more varied than in mainstream education, reflecting the broad range of pupils’ needs. Beyond the environmental, ecological, aesthetic aspect of the projects, as designers, we need to consider how to design accessible, nurturing and calming learning spaces, that will better the lives of pupils using them.